Army vows to hunt killers of 31 labourers in Indonesia’s Papua province

The Indonesian authorities have vowed to hunt down the killers of 31 construction workers who were building a major road in the restive Papua province. 

The men were murdered in the remote mountainous district of Nduga, allegedly by members of the Free Papua Movement, reported the Associated Press. 

Most of the victims were shot at their construction site, while seven attempted to hide at the residence of a local councillor before being tracked there and massacred. 

The incident was described by Ryamizard Ryacudu, the defence minister, as one of the worst attacks in the country in recent years. 

“They were not just criminals, but separatists,” he said of the perpetrators. “They want to separate Papua from Indonesia, so they must deal with the military, not the police. There will be no negotiations. They surrender or we finish them off.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who faces an election next year, said on Wednesday that he had tasked the Indonesian Defence Forces and the National Police to find the killers. 

“There is no place for armed criminal groups like this in the land of Papua as well as in every corner of the country," he stated. “I, on behalf of the people, nation, and state, convey deepest condolences to all families of the victims.”

The workers had been employed by Istaka Karya, a state-owned construction company, and had been building one of 14 bridges along the new 173-mile-long highway when they were attacked. Their bodies have not yet been recovered.

At present, most parts of Papua, which is covered by dense jungle, are accessible only by air or on foot. Following the atrocity, all bridge construction in the region has been suspended. 

Papua, located in the western half of New Guinea island, was annexed by Indonesia after a handover from Dutch colonialists in 1963. It was then incorporated into the country after a controversial 1969 UN-sanctioned plebiscite of tribal representatives, which was widely viewed as illegitimate.

Since then, it has had a long-running but low-profile separatist movement led by rebels in the Free Papua Movement.

They have in the past staged kidnappings and attacked government security personnel to gain international attention but rarely launched assaults on the scale seen at the weekend. 

Papua, Indonesia’s largest province, is rich with minerals, oil and timber and home to the world’s largest gold mine. But it is also the country’s poorest region, with 28 per cent living below the poverty line and with some of the worst infant mortality and literacy rates in Asia. 

Very few foreign journalists have been granted permission to enter, and the Indonesian authorities have been accused of widespread torture and abuse in an effort to quell its independence movement.